"Phantom Pain" @ Organic Theater Company

"Phantom Pain" @ Organic Theater Company

Theater Review by Mary Crylen

3 out of 4 stars

Can you agree to disagree? Playwright, Barbara Lhota tackles some large themes in the world premiere of Phantom Pain. Angela and Marnie met as kids – one black, one white – in a big Catholic neighborhood in Detroit during the turbulent 1970s. They moved together from Detroit to Chicago, got jobs, married, and have been best buddies since. But when a third childhood friend shows up for visit, all hell breaks loose. Old wounds are reopened, lies are exposed, and secrets lurking beneath the surface are revealed. Can shared story and love overcome these phantom pains? The term phantom pain is used to describe perceptions that an individual experiences relating to a limb or an organ that is not physically part of the body anymore. Spanning the physical and psychological, Lohta confronts the audience with a stigmatic atmosphere of the past that mirror closely to the cultural tensions still current today. 

Pamela White-Raines, Lisa Herceg, Kristen Williams. Photograph by John Lee Jennings.

Motown posters, city sights and a large Obama sticker placed on the fridge are the first impressions of the tiny Chicago apartment placed before you. Scenic designer, Austin Wood, and properties designer, Alexis Yordon, embellished the small space well. The modern, stylish apartment alone provides such context for the individuals living there from the knickknacks and photos to the cultural nods placed about the room. A foreshadowing of two cultures at odds by the end of the play sit on top the cabinet, an African statue next to a German beer stein. Marnie, played by Lisa Herceg, by first impression is anxious and superficially distractible. It is only until later through Marnie’s development does the audience come to understand her character as a deeply marginalized middle-ground comparative against the other three women. Each character representing a particular demographic from a particular environment, yet are vastly different in what I can only describe as somewhat of a human vend-diagram. Pamela White-Raines shines as the level-headed lovable Angela with the power to turn into a commanding force when tensions run high. A lovely refreshing performance amid a whirlpool of perspectives. While the three childhood friends have their reunion, quick-fire flashbacks happen extremely often. The jostled sense of time was illustrated through lighting; blue light illustrates a nostalgic and telling memory, while red represents the painful memories. Transitions were not as tight as I would have liked, but that is most likely due to what lights had which gels on them. The blue fades out to black then brought up to the white giving a pause for the audience to breathe and digest the brief scene, while the red was almost instantaneous. For such a small, Ryan Breneisen designed the lighting well in a very jam packed piece. Aside from the physical, the acting in these particular segments was fluid from flashback to present and deserves commending. 

Close to home themes that are in constant debate in our society include privilege, prejudice, politics, race, and victimization. The 90 minute play bulldozes through some deep controversial topics that beg deeper analysis. With incredibly dense dialogues and complex themes, this piece is one to chew on. These conversations happen every day, but always end in questions with no answers. Victim mentality and the spectrum of privilege created a tense space for a comparison of pain for these three women from Detroit. Two mirrored tragedies with completely different outcomes. A modern collage of problems society faces today in the eyes of the middle aged women who are defining their stories and finding comfort in the motto that “Things are gonna get easier”. 

Phantom Pain is now running through April 2nd, 2017 at Greenhouse Theater. For more info or to purchase tickets online, please visit www.organictheater.org or by calling Greenhouse Theater at 773-404-7336.

Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!